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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida.
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
PALM BEACH COUNTY
INTERVIEWEE: Virginia Argintar
INTERVIEWER: Doris Singer
DATE: October 23, 1981
S: This is Doris Singer in the home of Virginia Argintar in the City of West
Palm Beach, Florida.. The date is October 23, 1981. I want to thank you
for agreeing to be interviewed for the Oral History Project of the Jewish
Federation of Palm Beach County. To start our interview, would you tell
me where you spent your growing up years?
A: This is difficult to say because I have lived as a child in many different
places. I might have been started in Florida, but I was born in a suburb
of New York. My mother could never stand the cold weather so in winter
time she would rent a home in Tampa, Florida. Then in my early years, I
went to live with an aunt in North Carolina who had no children.
I grew up and I met my husband who was a Key West man from Florida. I met
him there and we did marry in North Carolina. I had no idea he'd ever bring
me to Florida, because I would never have married my husband. I disliked
Florida. It did not have what we are enjoying today -- the pleasures of
S: What made you come? Why did you decide to come?
A: I had given birth to a child, and when she was just an infant, she developed
a very serious ear condition, She came down with a case of spinal meningitis,
and the doctors said a mild climate would be good for our child. Of course,
I was unhappy with the decision, but this is where my parents came. My
parents were married in Key West, Florida and this naturally is the place
that I came to,
S: What year did you arrive?
A: Well we settled in West Palm Beach in December, 1922 and in those years
everything revolved around the Main Street which was called Clematis Avenue.
Our home was a little home right off Clematis -- always within walking
distance of Clematis.
S: Your business was on Clematis?
A: My husband located on Clematis Street, into a men's furnishing store. In
those years, when you had a men's store you sold suitcases and trunks and
general clothing for a man,
S: What was it like here in 1922?
A: Well it's certainly nothing like it is today in 1981. You had mosquitoes.
You'd go out in an evening and you'd slap your hands together and you'd
always slap a handful of mosquitoes.
S: I know you told me there were snakes.
A: Unfortunately we had snakes and scorpions and today they call them -- I
forget...in those years they called them roaches; but they're not called
S: Florida beetles?
A: No they're not called that either.
S: People came to your husband's shop, but where did you go to buy clothes?
A: Well, there was only really one leading store. There was another store
called Anthony's, but the leading store, (most everybody that I knew, we
all went to), it was called Hatch's Department Store and that was a store!
Before the store opened, they'd have all the clerks together and have
morning devotional services. Then the doors were opened.
The merchants then were different. All these people that were merchants,
or related to merchants, would get a discount of 10 or 15 or 20% off.
For a large department store I think that's unusual today, to ask anyone to
do that for you.
S: How many Jewish families were here when you came?
A: Well our little temple, Beth Israel, was just being built, and everybody,
truly outside of maybe a half a dozen, were all intermarried. The few
families that were here together were a very closely-knit group. If some-
body wasn't there on Friday night for a service, you knew it had to be
something drastic that happened, that they were not there. That was our
source of contact, our social -- everything revolved around our Temple.
S: What other things did you do for recreation?
A: Well, there was very little. After our Temple meetings or any meetings,
someone would suggest we go over to Gus's Baths and sit on the benches
there facing the ocean, and that was a sort of a social thing. And for
social recreation we'd get together at someone's home. It was either our
home, which was a large home, at the time, or Fay Gruner and 0,P, Gruner's
home. There might have been another home or two. We would have spaghetti
suppers to raise money so we could afford to have a rabbi. We'd also have
an auction in our home. Fortunately, my living room was able to accommodate
exactly 100 people for the auction. And we'd have our friends in and
various members of the Temple would come in for the auction. Those were
always successful affairs.
S: And who would come to these auctions?
A: Well many of our non-Jewish friends and our few little Jewish group would
S: Did you raise a lot of money in those days?
A: Well for us at the time -- (I don't remember the exact amount,) -- it
always sounded most successful. Our spaghetti suppers and our auctions
were most successful affairs.
S: Were you able to get a rabbi with the peoceeds, eventually?
A: We eventually were able to get a rabbi, We had one that stayed a year, and
we had another who stayed a year, and then finally we had Dr. Carl Herman,
who was our rabbi. He was an ultra-reformed rabbi, and we started to get
many new visitors that started coming into the town to be members of our
Temple. In the winter time, the winter visitors that stayed at the hotel
would come to our Temple. Unfortunately, there were people, (not many
people), there were a few families that belonged to the Congregational
Church. They wanted their children to grow up to know Judaism or some
form of religion. Then when we had the Temple, which was most natural,
they did become members of the Temple.
S: Where was your first Temple Israel located?
A: It was on Broward Avenue, a little Temple, and we outgrew that, and then on
the present site, we built our beautiful, large.Temple, Temple Israel facing
the lake front.
S: It is beautiful. Well in 1925, you moved to 28th Street in West Palm Beach.
Can you tell me something about what that area was like then?
A: Well they started renaming the streets, and finally our street was named
28th Street. 28th Street formerly had been a pineapple plantation, the
Gale Pineapple Plantation, and we were the first house on 28th Street.
S: It was a large house, I'm sure.
A: Yes it was, It had five bedrooms and three bathrooms at the time, which
was considered large, But apartments were not popular in those years, most
everybody had a home of some type.
S: Were you able to have help to help care for the home and the children? You
must have had a big garden.
A: We did have many, many visitors that would come down in the winter. God
bless my mother. She always had friends that would come down and stay the
Of course, I had a maid for the children, who got the magnificent sum of
$5.00. I had an old mammy that was with us and raised the children..was
with us- for years and years. She got the magnificent sum of $5.00. From
that $5.00 she paid $,50 a week for her rooming. And the nursemaid that
took care of the children -- she slept in the maid quarters, which was in
the rear of the house. We had a gardener that got all of a dollar and a
S: Was this for a week? -- A dollar and a quarter?
A: For the whole week that would come to a dollar and a quarter. We had a
cook that came from Georgia. She paid her way here, and her way back, and
she got the unheard of price of $9,00 a week,
S; A far cry from today, That's for sure,
A: The main thing was Fay Gruner, unfortunately she passed away, She had a
very large home and they used to call it "Gruner's Folly". It was a tremen-
dous home, because of the boom years that had come on, and we were all
sitting on top of the world. It's too bad it couldn't be today. Struggling
didn't mean a thing then, because everything was so inexpensive, and you
could live beautifully on a dollar a day. My husband decided to redecorate
the store. He had special cases and wall furnishings and whatnot all made
up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. To advertise the fact, he had newspapers
given out in our town for free. There was no charge for newspapers, and
had a triple section showing the help in the store, which was eleven clerks
and three tailors and the front of the store and the windows of the store
were all photographed and shown.
S: Was there a lot of business as a result?
A: Oh yes. Yes indeed. We had the leading men's.store business in the county.
And we'd had a good bit, most of the Palm Beach trade of the winter visitors.
Summertime there was nothing doing. In fact, they used to play baseball on
Clematis Street, and Dr. Ermine would be there and somebody would watch out,
and if they went into a store, somebody would say, "Somebody went into your
S: Wasn't it so hot to play baseball? Did they just come out in their shirt
A: Well in those years, your transportation was mostly by bicycle. There
weren't that many automobiles in those years. There were no parking meters.
You'd park on Clematis, and in the middle of the street the cars would park
and on either end would be tremendous bicycle racks. And the baseball was
played, oh I guess where the old Kettler Theater would be on Clematis
Street or where the Western Union would be. Up at that area the baseball
would be played.
S: Was there a movie in town then?
A: Yes it was the old Kettler moving picture and they would show little acts,
and the moving pictures. On Saturday nights the stores would close at
11 o'clock, and our friends, (we were very young in those years, in our
early 20's) and our big excitement was to wait till 11:30 to go to see
the midnight moving picture show. And from there we'd go to a place called
the'GteasySpoon. They would have hot chili, I believe it was the men
S: That sounds great.
A: Well it was a very happy life -- and a very closely tied community. There
was no such thing as you hear today of anti-semitism. In fact it was our
temple that was started with non-Jewish friends donating money to build our
temple. We had so few Jewish people here to raise it. And on Friday night
we did as they did in the churches -- we'd pass a basket and everybody
would put their little money in, and believe it or not, that little bit that
they put in went a great deal to offset our expenses for our Temple, And
then we had a choir of one. Mrs. Harry Halpern was the choir singer, and
Mrs. Dow was the organist. And on the High Holy Days we got a few others.
They were non-Jewish people, who would do the choir singing. But that
would be only at the High Holy Holidays, as.best as I remember it.
S: Soundsilike a good time, In 1926 you and Mr. Argintar bought property in
Palm Beach. Do you remember?
A: Well my husband did open a store in conjunction with the one we had, but I
guess we were a little ahead of our time. The store did not work out. So
that was closed. And then he bought property, I believe it was Tangiers.
If I can recall correctly, it was 100 feet...I forget the depth, for I
think it was $2,000.00. And that wasn't considered specially cheap in
S: Did you ever build anything on that?
A: No. One day we passed through, and we saw a great deal of water on the
street. It was low down, but we did sell that lot, In time to come the
street level was raised on that. They don't have that problem today.
S: There was a very bad hurricane here in 1928 and there was a lot of water
here. What do you remember about it?
A: I remember that very, very well. That was September 18th. It was on a
Sunday. My son was due to be born and he was very late in making his
arrival here. The doctor kept phoning me and phoning me that I'd better
get to the hospital, I'd better get to the hospital. I was the only one
set up at the hospital to be there at that time. But it's so misleading.
It's such a gentle breeze you'd say it's impossible for a storm to come--
impossible. Well ours being a new home, most of my friends came to our
home thinking it would be the stronger home. And my mother happened to
be here and my father had witnessed the hurricane storm, oh, about two
weeks before this storm reached West Palm Beach, and he was telling us of
the devastation of San Juan in Puerto Rico, of what was there, and how
they had a little tidal wave that came into San Juan. He came here, and
he came just in time to help out with this terrible storm. Finally, my
husband did take me to the hospital and he barely got to make it back to
our home, I had a sunken living room which'might have been quite high.
Anyway they did tell me later on, although all doors were bolted and all
windows were sealed, the water has a way of getting in. It was full
right to the top step of the water. Fortunately, the roof did not go
off our home, it was just the water. And my mother, was the oldest of
all the people there. All the young wives were fainting, and my mother
was there with a little sterno heat, because she was familiar with
storms and was heating up coffee, and these women were'fainting due to
fright. It was a horrid thing to go through. Well in the hospital,
'cause I thought everything was gone, it was hard to be in the hospital
at that time, it was a very, very small building. I had a very large
room, and a small little porch that was all cretonne covered, and we paid
the magnificent sum of $7.00 a day. And that was Good Samaritan Hospital.
At that time Judge Chillingsworth's wife was there. I think the old timers
remember him very well. He and his wife were later murdered, and they were
drowned in the ocean. At that time her baby'wasn't expected, and she gave
birth to a little boy. A very dear friend of mine had a little girl, and
there was a little illegitimate child. Well all the windows went in and
there was just the hallway, and this poor child was so frightened. She
had given birth to' this little boy, and what'd they.call him? They
called him a name which is symbolic of something of the hurricane and the
doctor was so annoyed. She was so frightened, it was hard for her to relax
enough to give birth to his child.
They brought in a number of the injured of course when the storm comes you
can't see. If you put your finger up in front of your eyes, you can barely
see that finger, if you're caught, unfortunately, in this rain storm. Well
to me, I thought everything was gone, but we all survived. When it was
dark, my husband did come. He says the house was intact; we're all right,
but the hospital was anything but all right. It was just a shambles. And
me, the one who was the only one due to give birth that day, didn't have my
child until a later time.
S: But no one you knew was hurt.
A: Well they all had damage to their homes. A great deal of damage to their
homes, but ours, in fact I attribute to it being a fairly new house, was
able to go through the storm as well as it did. You get a lull in the
storm, and during that lull we had a great deal of lumber in the garage
which heaven had provided, I guess. And during the lull they got up and
they took the boards out of my dining room table. I had many, many windows,
and many, many doors, and they nailed everything down. Then suddenly they
realized, that if we have to excape, how are we going to get out of this.
We've trapped ourselves in, no way of getting out. But God was very good,
everybody came through it very well.
On 29th Street, the Newlands had a home. The roof went off, unfortunately
for the Newlands, but fortunately for us. It hit my maids quarters and
demolished that, but saved the main house from being greatly damaged. The
worst part is the water damage with the water seeping in. There's no way
for water to get in, and how water seeps intd a home during a hurricane
S: Were the carpets spoiled?
A: Well they were all given out to be dry cleaned and everything. Fortunately,
we had no tidal wave. My father had witnessed the tidal wave to the main
part of San Juan. He was a traveller for all Latin Countries in South
America and to all his Key West people. He talked Spanish fluently.
S: After that hurricane, then the depression hit the West Palm Beach area,
as well as the whole country. What was the effect on the area and your
store? Was it able to stay open?
A: At that particular time it was a tragedy for our town. That was almost
the beginning of the end for our town. Banks closed, real estate hold-
ings people weren't able to meet their payments, and my husband had
bought up a great deal of property in Boca Raton and he bought up
which is upper 7th Avenue today, which is unusual, 100 acres. It is an
unusual amount for acreage, which is upper 7th Avenue. He bought a
great deal of property in town here, and you try to keep this piece of
property to pay taxes on that, and you wind up losing everything and with
your banks closing. I was the last depositor into a bank where
Morrison's Cafeteria used to be on Olive Street. This was on a Saturday.
Banks would be opened half a day. I came to the bank and it was quite
a number of thousands of dollars that I was putting into the bank for my
daughter, which was my only child at the time. And I said, I don't want
to take anything out. I want to put it in. And the colored fellow
obliged me by opening the doqr. Well this particular bank, (they wanted
my husband to be a director in this bank) which is one thing. He would
have been liable for whatever stock he had in the bank. It didn't take
long, and one of the officers came. He said to me, because I was in the
store at the time, (my husband was in the northern market buying merchan-
dise) "Don't take any checks in. It won't be in tonight's paper, but
it'll be in tomorrow, Sunday's paper, that the bank is closed and will
not open". I know I never went down to collect. I know they had in the
paper that they were paying off, Whatever it came to, I didn't even
bother to go down to collect, of all this money that was in the bank
in my name for my daughter. And my husband's real estate account was in
that bank also.
S: Were people able to shop? I mean did they come to buy clothes?
A: Well in those years due to the hurricane the roof went off my husband's
store, Didn't have a penny's insurance. Didn't have a penny's insurance
on the home, and all the merchandise was wet, and you tried to dry as
much as you can and for so many people their clothes were gone and what-
ever you did, you tried to realize a little something on your merchan-
dise. But my husband, weathered the storm. He always was of a wonderful
disposition..nothing ever worried him.
S: That's great, What about the Jewish Community helping? I remember that
you said that they helped transients who passed through the area in those
years if they got into trouble.
A: It was never our home town people that got into trouble, but we would have
these transients come in. And fortunately we had a very understanding
sheriff, chief of police. We never had a Jew spend one night in jail.
They'd call my husband up or Harry Halpern, who lived here a number of
S: What did they do? Did the sheriff call you husband?
A: Yes, my husband seemed to have a very close rapport with many of our non-
Jewish friends. In fact, he was asked to join the Klu Klux Klan. My
husband said, "You boys don't want me in, I'm a Jew". He said that has
nothing' to do with it. This is to take care of the "niggers" in town.
He said he knew he wouldn't be accepted into the Klan. He knew who the
Grand Klegel was (the big macher) of the Ku Klux Klan was. He said,
"If I can join I'll sign up", but he knew that they would never accept him.
And it didn't take a little while after that, we did have a lynching of a
colored young man in our city park. Of course, we old timers didn't
approve of that kind of justice. Course my husband knew he wouldn't be
accepted, and he didn't approve of the Klan even in those years.
S: Well in the 30's I know you were President of the Temple Israel Sister-
hood. Was there a special project accomplished while you were the Presi-
dent, that you can remember?
A: Well everything was to be able to afford our rabbi and keep our rabbi and
my main purpose was working fbr the Temple. Though I would have ample
help in the house, I would take my vacuum cleaner to the Temple to clean
it so it would be spotless for Friday night services.
S: Did you have a lot of people come to .the meetings?
A: Well we tried to entice them. I think it took eight for a quorum, if it
took that many; and we tried to entice the others to come and we'd try
to entice new members and we'd give them some ice cream -- sometimes we'd
give them a cookie with a little ice cream to entice them to make it a
little social thing also.
S: Were there many Jewish people who became active in public life here?
A: I can't say we had anybody outstanding. All I can say is they were very
much respected.... our little small Jewish community. Mr. Max Serkin, he
was very active in the Masonic Order. So was my husband active in the
Masonic Order. But again, there was no outstanding man. We were a very
S: What about elected officials?
A: We did have a mayor. We did have a Jewish mayor, Mr. Mendel, His wife
unfortunately, or fortunately, was not of the Jewish faith. But many of
our members were intermarried and they'd all come with their husbands or
wives, whichever one was Jewish. There was a good rapport -- with the
Catholic Church in those years. In fact my own child had attended the
Catholic School, and she was always treated with a great deal of love
and we were treated with respect by the Church people.
S: What happened to the area as World War II approached? What about Cy's
Men's Shop? Did he sell Army uniforms?
A: Oh, then the boom started. Then the boom really started all over. They
opened up a Camp Morrison, and north of us they opened up a Camp Murphy.
And we had many English flyers here that we sold the English uniforms to
and the American uniforms to the people. When our Jewish Holidays came,
the few Jewish families that were here had homes large enough. We would
have these soldiers to be at our homes for the holiday meals, all holidays.
And we got to be very, very friendly with all these soldiers, and their
families, especially in our store. We had all the English insignias for
the English flyers. Then you get to meet the families and you get to
meet the mothers and the fathers. Then you start hearing this one's
plane was shot down, all were lost, that one's plane was shot down and the
survivors taken prisoner. Then suddenly you don't want to know any more
about any of these families 'cause it really would throw you into a
depression. And I never become interested, and wanted to know anything or
meet any of their families. They might have thought we were snobbish, but
that wasn't the feeling at all. It would hurt us too deeply when anything
happened to their sons.
S: Well you lived on the coast; you probably had to keep your homes with the
blackout curtains and you had air raid wardens.
A: No, I was living on 28th Street at the time. We didn't have to have black-
out curtains. But in Palm Beach, especially along the ocean way, they were
the ones that had to. Unfortunately, there was an American ship that was
bombed during the light hours. Bombed off, I guess where Gus's pier was.
They were torpedoed off there, and the next morning in our newspaper they
didn't want anything repeated, or for us to talk anything about it, and
they wrote nothing about the torpedoing of this ship. All they said,
"We didn't hear anything, and we didn't see anything". People were on
the oceanside watching all that went on. I know my husband outfitted,
and some of the other stores outfitted, people from boats that were tor-
pedoed. And these people were brought into town -- most of them had no
clothing at all and they had jumped into the water during the night period,
and we had to outfit these.
Right after the war period, how fortunate we were. One can look back and
think of the Courthouse not having money to pay the employees. Script was
issued, and was taken in as trade into the various stores on Clematis
Avenue. But that was just a short period because the boom had really
started again and people started to move here every week. New buildings
started coming up...new stores opening up.
S: Well you've lived here for more than 59 years. If you could pick one
thing, what would you say was the biggest change you've seen in the West
Palm Beach area?
A: Well, as a child, when I was very young, some time we travelled with our
father. The first time I remember we had been on a visit to Cuba. My
brother manufactured shirts and other things and we had come back from
Cuba where they had what they used to call the Sun Dance---and visited.
My father had many friends in Florida. In original years, he used to be
what you call a drummer and he had his cronies. And in time to come my
mother made him discontinue his Florida activities, business activities,
and then he devoted his business years only to travelling to the Latin
Countries. In those years you had no planes, you had nothing, you just
had boats. And his travelling, he'd be three months away from home, and
be'home a short while again, and it would take about eight days for boats
to travel and when he got into the interior of these countries he would
work with mule packs, mules to go from one little town to another. And
there was so much to see...so many changes to the present time. Living
now in 1981 to see the wonderful progress this Town has made in those
years. Of course, if we didn't have air conditioning, this town would
still be a sand lot. It was air conditioning that really put this town
on the map.
S: Did your store have air conditioning?
A: Our store was one of the first stores in West Palm Beach that had air
conditioning. And I would go from home to the store just to be comfort-
able in air conditioning. The main social activity in those days you had
your hat, your purse and your gloves and you'd walk up and down Clematis
Street and you'd wind up in booths to have an ice cream soda or Coca Cola
and that was the social activities mostly of the day.
S: It sound like it was wonderful here.
A: As I said before and again...It was a very close relationship between the
Jewish families that were here in town. When I stop to think of first
moving here, of the nights that I cried, because my husband never knew
how unhappy I was and how I disliked and didn't want to come to Florida.
Today I wouldn't want to live anywhere else but in our town of West Palm
S: And we are certainly happy that you decided to make that move in 1922.
On behalf of the Jewish Federation, I'd like to thank you for being so
helpful in adding to the history of this entire area.